8th Fire: The way forward

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To further explore Aboriginal history and culture from a literary perspective, CBC Books has teamed up with journalist and fiction writer Waubgeshig Rice, author of Midnight Sweatlodge, to present a series of blogs highlighting the important work of Indigenous writers, past, present and future.

In his final post, Rice reflects on how Aboriginal literature has influenced his development as a person and why these stories should continue to be shared.

By Waubgeshig Rice

waub-headshot1`.jpgI grew up in a community that was in a state of cultural limbo. As a child in the 1980s, I wasn't really sure what being Anishinaabe meant — culturally, socially or politically. Wasauksing First Nation is on an island on Georgian Bay right across from the town of Parry Sound, Ont. We were physically separated from the rest of mainstream Canadian society, and a lot of our old ways had been scrubbed from our community through various official assimilative practices like day schools. The negative impacts of colonialism lingered, and there was a considerable degree of physical, emotional and substance abuse on our reserve. But by the time the 1980s came to a close, people in our community were turning to traditional ceremonies like sweatlodges to overcome that negativity. They weren't ashamed of being Anishinaabe any more.

As I started to go to sweats and powwows, and as I listened more closely to the language, I slowly understood what my identity was. It was also around this time that I discovered the written word's role in that broader Aboriginal cultural renaissance. I read that other people in other communities in the generations before mine went through similar cultural conflicts. They all seemed to resolve them, so that made understanding how to get back to the old ways a lot easier. As an adolescent, I would go to sweats in the evenings, then come home and read about other ceremonies in books. Identity slowly flooded back in.

This personal journey is nowhere near complete, and it will be many years before I truly know what it is to be an Anishinaabe person in this country. But that journey drives a lot of my own writing, and it will be a constant source of inspiration. I also feel fortunate that I will always be continually inspired by the legendary works of some of our hallowed Aboriginal authors. That's why this project has been one of the most fulfilling of my life.

I have been involved with CBC's 8th Fire project since last spring. When I was first asked by the team for my input on this groundbreaking multimedia look at contemporary Aboriginal life in Canada and the way forward, I was honoured and excited. I eventually produced a handful of vignettes for the online component called "8th Fire Dispatches." On the verge of the TV series' roll-out, CBC Books asked me to write these weekly columns about essential Aboriginal literature to complement some of the themes outlined in the documentary series. It was a fun and sometimes difficult challenge, but above all, it was introspectively engaging and hugely rewarding. I was able to revisit some of the books that helped shape my grasp of Aboriginal Canadian identity and, more specifically, my role as a young Anishinaabe person.

As a fledgling author, I was also able to look back at the authors and the books that directly inspired me to pursue this path. All of the books I've written about in past posts — and others in the catalogues of the authors I discussed — have influenced my own writing in countless ways. But there are also many others I didn't get to, such as Drew Hayden Taylor and Thomson Highway on the fiction side, and non-fiction powerhouses like Taiake Alfred and Calvin Helin. For a comprehensive list of their works and even more greats in the Aboriginal literary canon, there's a fantastic link on the 8th Fire website.

While both 8th Fire and my contributions here to CBC Books have wrapped up, the story isn't over. These projects will live on here in the digital realm, so make sure you share what we've created with all your friends and family. More important, stay tuned to the vibrant, talented and powerful domain that is Aboriginal Canada. Our stories are strong. They had to be, in order to bear what our ancestors lived through. Today, we have rich, spirited and powerful stories carried by our own masters of words and narratives. And as more and more young people turn to modern storytelling — all the while maintaining our traditions — the canon of books will only blossom even further. Our stories will never die.

See more special 8th Fire interviews and blog entries here.
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